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AFT Study Denounces Charters

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An analysis of the nation's charter schools conducted by the American Federation of Teachers has found that a majority fail to work as expected and concludes that such experiments should not be expanded.

Charter schools do not produce higher student achievement than other public schools, empower teachers, or serve as models for innovation as anticipated, the report, "Do Charter Schools Measure Up?: The Charter School Experiment After 10 Years," maintains. The 108-page analysis, quietly released here this week at the union's biennial convention, draws such conclusions from examinations of state data as well as other research on the topic.

"It is a road that is not terribly productive," said Joan Baratz-Snowden, the director of the AFT's educational issues department. "Charter schools are a distraction from what we need to be doing."

Charter school advocates immediately contested the findings of the 1.3 million-member teachers' union, charging that the AFT was biased against the charter concept and that the data used in the report were outdated and skewed.

"An AFT study on charter schools has about as much credibility as a Philip Morris study on smoking," Lawrence Patrick, the president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, said in a statement circulated by his group and five other pro-charter organizations. Still, a study released out of North Carolina this week draws conclusions similar to those in the AFT report. The North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research, a nonprofit group based in Raleigh that studies public-policy issues, found that charter schools in the state did not perform as well as other public schools on end-of-grade reading, writing, and mathematics tests. Moreover, the North Carolina report says, the charter schools lack racial balance and show problems with financial management.

The center urged state lawmakers not to raise the cap on charters, as some have recommended.

'A Dead End'?

The AFT credits its late president, Albert Shanker, with first articulating the concept of charter schools in 1988 as a means of increasing parental choice, freeing teachers and administrators from bureaucratic red tape, and encouraging innovation, all the while increasing student achievement. Today, almost 580,000 children attend nearly 2,400 charter schools in 37 states and the District of Columbia. The schools are financed by public dollars, but operate free of many of the restrictions placed on traditional public schools.

Most charter schools, however, have failed to live up to expectations, the AFT report argues. Among its findings:

  • Student achievement in charter schools remains comparable to that in regular public schools.
  • Charter school teachers feel less empowered to make changes in their workplaces than do their peers in traditional buildings and hold mixed feelings about administrators and governance structures.
  • Such efforts encourage innovation at the organizational level, but are less successful at changing instruction.
  • Charter schools contribute to the isolation of students by race and class.
  • Charter schools fail to be more accountable than regular public schools.
  • Such buildings generally receive as much money from public and private sources as what regular public schools receive from government coffers, but they educate fewer needy children who tend to cost more to educate.

"They are a dead end," charged Tom Mooney, the chairman of the union's program and policy council, which provided input on the report, and the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers. The charter school advocates, meanwhile, countered claims made by the AFT report. For example, they cited studies undertaken in California, Chicago, and Arizona that found charter school students outperforming their counterparts in regular school systems.

They also disputed the notion that Mr. Shanker was instrumental in the creation of charter schools. "At no time did he or his union recommend the essence of the charter school concept," the groups said in the statement.

The union's findings do not indicate a change of the organization's official policy toward charter schools, Mr. Mooney said. That would require official action from the union body, and union leaders do not plan on putting it before the group at this time, he said. The AFT policy supports charter schools under specified conditions.

Delegates at the convention in Las Vegas said they have been watching the development of charter schools in their communities closely and agree with the analysis.

"A lot of people looked at charter schools as a magic bullet," said Gregg Solkovits, a middle school social studies teacher who works in Los Angeles. "This study calls attention to that fact that they aren't that."

A New War Chest

Just as the charter school report was being released, delegates voted to create a $6.5 million war chest to fight political battles at the state level.

Each month, members will send 67 cents to union headquarters in Washington to be placed into a "solidarity fund." Twenty-five cents of that money will be redirected to state affiliates immediately, pending approval of individual projects by the AFT. The remainder will be used by national officials to help affiliates support or oppose measures in their states.

While both the state affiliates and the national organization have always lobbied on behalf of their members, an imperative need exists to confront an increasing number of state referendums, ballot initiatives, and harmful legislation, Herb Magidson, an AFT vice president, told the delegates.

"It is very clear that there is a well-funded, extremist group of ultra-conservatives led by millionaire ideologues who seek to do away with unions," he said.

Delegates from Baltimore, Chicago, and Philadelphia rose to give testimony to what they see as the power of such forces in their states, citing threats to strip the unions of power.

"Yes, it is a lot of money, but we're not going to protect our members and advance the cause by holding a bake sale," said Deborah Lynch, the president of the 35,000-member Chicago Federation of Teachers.

The AFT joins the National Education Association in establishing such a special fund. Two years ago, delegates to the NEA convention voted to create a similar pot of money that would raise $7 million annually, two-thirds of which was to be earmarked to lobby for and against state ballot initiatives and legislation. ("NEA Trains Political Guns on NRA," Reporter's Notebook, July 12, 2000.)

"Our local has been able to fight," said Ted Kirsch, the president of the 21,000-member Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, an AFT affiliate. "But there are many locals that do not have the funds."

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